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1999: Big Mac held back

This week in 1999: The Mets outslug a tired a Mark McGwire and best the Killer B's.

In 1998, the Cardinals visited the Mets in mid-August as excitement about Mark McGwire's record home run pace hit a fever pitch. St. Louis's slugger had vowed not to mention The Record until he belted number 50, which he did while in Queens. Spectators flocked to Shea to ooh and aah at his prodigious blasts, the home team rendered an afterthought.

In 1999, the Cardinals once again visited the Mets as McGwire neared 50 home runs, but the atmosphere around him was a tad different. The McGwire-Sosa home run race of '98 and the record-high offensive output across the league had numbed fans to the allure of the longball. With St. Louis headed for another disappointing season, McGwire had no goals for the year but "chasing myself," which he found boring. He also wearied of answering questions about androstenedione, the mysterious "supplement" he copped to having taken but swore he was off now, even if those questions were more curious than accusatory.

Rain intervened on the night of the first Cards game on August 20, though the Mets waited as long as they could before postponing, hoping to take advantage of a large crowd of McGwire gawkers. The next afternoon, a sniffly Kenny Rogers sneezed himself into back spasms and was forced to leave the game after less than three innings on the mound. Pat Mahomes took his place and held the Cards in check while the Mets' defense made some spectacular plays to rob hits and the offense rallied to an eventual 7-4 victory.

The first half of the rain-necessitated double header on August 22 had a little something for everyone. Those who came to watch McGwire got to see him destroy a pitch by Octavio Dotel. Big Mac crushed the ball so hard it took out the "6" in the 16 signifying Ray Lankford on the visiting lineup side of Shea's enormous scoreboard. McGwire's blast traveled 502 feet and was still traveling upwards before it was stopped by a lightbulb.

Those who came to cheer on the home team saw the Mets execute a furious five-run rally in the eighth inning—four runs coming on a John Olerud grand slam—to tie the game at 6. The Cardinals scored against Armando Benitez in the ninth to regain the lead, but the Mets stormed right back in the bottom half when Rey Ordoñez and Matt Franco worked one-out walks, followed by a game-tying double by Rickey Henderson. With the winning run 90 feet away, Tony La Russa played his infield in, hoping for a play at the plate, but Edgardo Alfonzo defied him with a ball that slipped between third and short. Franco trotted home to cap a thrilling 8-7 win.

The Mets dropped the nightcap, 7-5, falling behind early before falling just short in a late rally that made the final score closer than it should have been. They then welcomed the Killer B Astros for three games beginning on August 23. With Houston a potential rival for the wild card (they led the surprising Cincinnati Reds by only half a game in the NL Central at the time), the Mets-Astros series received a lot of hype and attention in the local press, which seemed to perturb the visitors. Hemmed in by a clubhouse full of reporters, Jeff Bagwell exclaimed, "What is this, 1986 all over again?"

Suffused with the spirit of '86, the Mets executed a stirring walkoff win for the second day in a row. Al Leiter pitched brilliantly and kept the Astros at bay until a Carl Everett homer knotted the score in the top of the seventh. With the game still tied, Darryl Hamilton led off the bottom of the ninth with a double, then moved to third on a sac bunt. For reasons known only to them, the Astros elected to walk Rey Ordoñez and pitch to Matt Franco instead. Franco responded with a parachute single that fell untouched among three fielders, and Hamilton scored to conclude a 3-2 Mets victory.

The next night brought another pitcher's duel, as Masato Yoshii limited the Astros to a Carl Everett solo shot, while Houston ace Mike Hampton did much the same, only allowing a Mike Piazza home run. The game stayed tied at 1 until the tenth, when Dennis Cook (who, in a season where he was called out of the bullpen on an almost daily basis, hadn't been used in eight days) coughed up four runs, three on a Bagwell blast that sailed just over Roger Cedeño's leaping glove at the right field fence.

The home team fell, 5-1, but prevailed in the series finale, 4-0. Kenny Rogers recovered from his back issues to pitch into the ninth inning, while Robin Ventura knocked in a pair of runs to hearty chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" By taking four of six in their homestand, New York stayed within 1.5 games of the Braves. The Mets hoped to stay hot as they embarked on the second of three westward trips that would close out their season. One Met would put an exclamation mark on his breakout season but putting together the greatest night at the plate in franchise history.